Experiencing Waithoods:Transitioning from Childhood in Conflict Contexts
In areas of protracted conflicts, the uncertainties, fears and a sense of hopelessness perpetuated due to cycles of violence hamper the rather smooth transitions from one’s childhood to youth-hood, which the scholars have referred to as a phase of ‘waithood’. This article by Diksha Poddar is an attempt to open a conversation on various nuances of this intermediate phase of transition between one’s childhood and youth-hood.
Experiences of growing up in the contexts of conflicts are often missed from the gaze of the scholars studying Peace and Conflict Studies per se. And therefore, this intersection of childhoods, youth and peace studies provides a fertile ground to explore the nuances of what is understood as the transitioning experience from childhood to youth in the situations of conflict. Protracted conflicts often tend to blur the otherwise neater boundaries that define the transitions from childhood to youth-hood and finally to adulthood. The uncertainties, fears and a sense of hopelessness perpetuated due to cycles of violence hamper the rather smooth transitions from one phase to another, which the scholars have referred to as a phase of ‘waithood’. This article is an attempt to open a conversation on various nuances o`f this intermediate phase of transition between one’s childhood and youth-hood.
Ever evolving situations of conflicts with regular episodes of violence are often disturbed and stressful to navigate through, especially for children. Violent communal, social and political developments very easily percolate to one’s personal space which hampers a child’s growing processes. These include regular instances of mourning and grieving at homes and neighborhoods, restricted mobility (and hence, limited avenues to explore the outside world and interact with their peers), shared household responsibilities at early ages (especially with their mothers as fathers, uncles and brothers are usually out to “fight” the “war”), disrupted schooling, among many others. There is a sense of interruption and suspension that disrupts the daily routines and hampers regular functioning and behaviors within families and in societies at large. When spread over long periods of time, running over years and decades as in many cases, such pauses and breaks result in ‘generations in waiting’.
Regular shutdowns affect the learning cycles of children growing up in conflict contexts. Inaccessibility to schools and lack of alternate spaces of learning such as vocational activity centers and recreational platforms limit children to their homes and close neighborhood surroundings. Such contexts are often marked by lost teaching-learning interactions, skipped grades (mass promotions to next grades without due considerations, for over years in most cases) and missed classroom experiences that hamper children’s holistic growing up processes. With this, they are mostly home-tutored or learn and grow with their peers. In many cases, unfolding political violence leaves much less room at home for attention for child-care-like activities, thus, leaving children to explore their ‘new’ worlds and realities by themselves.
Another important marker of this transition from being a child to youth-hood is the phase where they move out of the school and are employment-ready or have completed just a few years of engaging in an income generation activity to be economically independent. Hampered education directly affects the employment-ability of a young person. In situations of conflict, employment opportunities are compromised and are skewed in relation to youth who are ready to be employed. The political situation reduces scope for healthy working environments that fosters growth and possibilities for young people. Thus, a smooth transition out of one’s childhood is disturbed, yet again with delayed economic avenues within their local contexts.
Apart from economic factors, there are social indicators that legitimizes one’s shift from childhood days to their youth years. And, many of these indicators are derived and ‘regulated’ within one’s social settings. Marriage is one such aspect that is a key marker of this transition in many socio-cultural contexts. In these social contexts, marriage often carries an undertone of economic independence and grounds an individual towards taking-up familial responsibilities, such as taking care of aging parents, nurturing children, etc. Since economic autonomy is an important prerequisite in many cultures, economic instability at a personal level due to ongoing political disruptions, hinders marriages and family formations.
Waithoods are also argued to be gendered in nature, as the experiences of different genders in this phase of stuck-ness vary in proportion to their marginality in conflicting situations. For instance, in traditional local contexts, the condition of economic independence for marriage is levied mostly on young men that further forces young girls into limiting spaces that hinders their psychosocial development. Drawing from his experiences, Stranchan (2015) highlights that youth-hoods are much shorter for girls as early marriages soon follow motherhoods and their transition into adulthood are much sooner. Thus, of the many experiences of growing in a condition of prolonged conflicts, young girls’ interactions with transiting into youth-hoods and waithoods are also deeply rooted in experiences of marginalization and victimization.
While conflict has delaying effects on one’s transition from a child to youth, the conflict also tends to accelerate the transition between youth-hood and adulthood (ibid). As discussed, lost years of schooling, poor quality of education and shrunken opportunities to gain economic independence hampers a smooth transition between the phases. However, at the same time, conflict situations have also demonstrated tendencies to accelerate this transition. Critical economic and social immediate needs within families and societies many a time force young people to take up ‘adult’ like roles and responsibilities, prematurely. Contextualized within the experiences of child soldiers, child laborers, child marriages and child-led households, such early transitions manifest themselves to cater to the push and urge to actively participate in the ongoing conflicts or the economic and financial needs of the family or to be surrogate parents to siblings because of loss of parents or immediate family members to conflict.
Whether delayed or accelerated, such transitions from one’s childhood to youth-hoods are not easy. Along with pressing social, economic and political conditions, the transition is marked with deep rooted anger, trauma and frustration. And, as the child grows older this may or may not get channelized in a constructive manner in the existent circumstances. Moreover, lack of proper avenues to guide and address such difficult situations, further adds to the cycles of violence and prolonged-ness of conflict.
Waithoods in many conflict contexts coincide with the transition into and from youth-hood and the experience of youth-hood in itself. And, such experiences certainly push the discourse to critically engage with defining youth-hood in terms of age brackets that attempt to neatly define these various phases and their associated roles, responsibilities and expectations in one's life. For instance, preceding discussions indicate that in certain contexts, economic autonomy for boys and early marriages for girls are important markers that indicate a closure of one’s youth-hood, coinciding with the experiences of waithood. While, one is certainly not yet arguing for the discriminatory nature of the dichotomy in itself, this marker does indicate the complexity of defining the various phases in neat boxes, when the experiences of growing in conflict situations lies in-between these demarcations. This opens a context for much deeper conversations around readjusting the lenses to understand these transitions, especially when experienced in one’s early years. While age-defined phases are universally more acceptable, it is important that the researchers, policy-makers and practitioners take into consideration that age may not be the only defining demarcator of these phases, especially as the experiences of waithoods spill over to other categories. There are many other factors that can be taken into consideration, such as one’s education status, economic autonomy, political acumen, social status, and/or biological factors. These are dynamic in nature and cut across each other. However, questions around evaluating and scaling these factors still remain open for further interrogation.
Strachan, A. L., 2015. Youth Transitions into Adulthood in Protracted Crisis. Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC), United Kingdom.
Diksha Poddar is a Research Scholar at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she is studying the processes of narrativization around youth and peacebuilding in conflict areas. She is currently associated with WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace), New Delhi as a Junior Fellow. Her interest lies at the intersection of youth, creative arts, peacebuilding and feminist methodologies. An MPhil in South Asian Studies, Diksha has completed her Masters in Development Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi and graduation in Political Science and Economics from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She also holds a post-graduate Diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace Building from University of Delhi.